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The Looming Death Of Naqashi

By Aown Ali 

This is Naqashi, the delicate art of painting lively nature. Photo by Author

Brush moves in a careful direction and fine lines emerge painting a bunch of jasmine on a turquoise surface. This is Naqashi, a delicate art of painting lively nature. Naqashi has adorned many buildings in Pakistan, India, Iran, Central Asia, Turkey and Arab world and its brilliant objects are found in museums and private collections.

Malik Abdul Rehman pauses to greet his guest and discussion starts. He is from the third generation of a family, devoted to the art of Naqashi. His father and grandfather, both were celebrated artists who had done great works and bagged wide acclaim.

Malik Abdul Rehman is from the third generation of a family, devoted to the art of Naqashi.

Rehman tells that his ancestors have been doing this art for centuries. According to him, Multan had been a hub of Naqashi since long. As far as the artists who did Naqashi in Taj Mahal also belonged to Multan. And it not only determines the period but also testifies the worth of Multani Naqashs.

“All the arts and craft of Multan are blessing of saints. They brought many artists from Iran and central Asia who trained local people here”, Rehman said. By this way, a rich tradition of Iranian and central Asian arts and crafts met with Indian taste and new types and schools of art emerged.

It’s brilliant objects are found on buildings and in museums and private collections.

Rehman tells that with the passage of the time many moves and shifts came into Naqashi but the artists of Multan who had developed their unique styles adhered strictly to it and kept it alive. So you can still distinguish the work of Multani artists in Taj mahal and many other grand buildings in Pakistan and India. “This is most important that your art has particular characteristics”, he said.

Multan had been a hub of Naqashi. Even the Naqashs of Taj Mahal were also from Multan, tells Rehman.

In 2015 he participated in a competition in Tabriz, Iran along with participants from 42 countries he told, but he won the 1st prize because his work was altogether matchless but the central Asians, Iranians and Turkish had a close resemblance. However, Rehman maintained,  “This is art because it is exclusive.”

The brush moves in a careful direction and fine lines emerge painting a bunch of jasmine on a turquoise surface.

Rehman has done Naqashi on various medium, for example, painted in hotels, mosques and palaces, designed vases, pottery and wood. But now he spends his time on another distinctive product of Multan, it is camel skin lamps.

Camel skin lamp is also a proud product of Multan. Malik Abdullah Naqash is credited to have developed it in 1910.

Camel skin lamp making has three phases: first the skin is cleared from hair and chopped like mince then this mixture is wrapped on clay mould. After some days when skin is dried it is hit with the stick and thus clay mould breaks’ leaving dried camel skin in perfect shape then it is sent to Naqash who adorns it with his fine art.

Rehman told three types of craftsmen are involved in the process to make items of camel skin. First clay man makes mould then Dabgar who makes camel skin material and then Naqash who finishes it.

Abdul Rehman also narrated the story how camel skin lamps started. He told his grandfather Malik Ashiq was a great Naqash, in his time Multani Dabgar used to make bowls and cups with camel skin. As it is a semi transparent material, Ashiq thought to use it for lamp making. Thus first lamp of camel skin was formed in 1910.

Traditional arts and crafts are facing a crisis due to lack of patrons and government support, warns Rehman.

Our discussion diverted to old localities of craftsmen located in walled city of Multan and Abdur Rehman told these localities associated with particular arts and crafts were nurseries for those arts.

For example, Mohallah Kamngaran was particular for Kashigar and Naqash families, Mohallah Kumharanwala was of clay men, carpet weavers locality was known as Mohallah Qaleen Bafan and so others. There were about 20 such mohallas in Multan but these have not been preserved nor have the arts and crafts been protected and supported, sincerely.

Given the bleak scenario, the new generation is reluctant to adopt traditional arts and craft as a career, tells Rehman.

Rehman believes these arts and crafts remained because patrons had been there, in governments and in public, so we see that in almost all heritage buildings, either the rulers made it or private persons, used local arts and crafts. When a project was started best craftsmen were hired who further engaged locals as a junior. By this way, new people continued learning crafts and it flourished.

Now if the crafts are on the decline, he says, it’s one major reason is that these are not being used in governmental and private projects. We are blindly following Western architects, but nobody thinks that British had used most of the local building characteristics in the constructions they did here. Because they knew that it has coherence with local conditions.

Sales of art pieces and handicrafts are continuously decreasing due to fewer tourists and exhibitions, notes Rehman.

Rehman told these crafts are facing strange times these days. The crafts and arts have not much consumption so the old, trained generations are not feeling comfortable, socially, economically and mentally. And looking this scenario new generations are reluctant to join their traditional fields.

About Author: Aown Ali is a Lahore based photojournalist with interest in culture, architecture and history.   

All Photos by the author.